Missouri court gets it right on constitutional amendment law

This article originally appeared in The Hill on July 17, 2018.

Amid all the false claims distributed about the Constitution’s amendment-convention process, it is refreshing and reassuring when a court gets the law exactly right. That’s what happened recently in a Missouri case.

In 2017, the Missouri legislature adopted a resolution applying for a convention for proposing amendments. A convention for proposing amendments is the Constitution’s way of allowing state legislatures to bypass Congress in suggesting constitutional amendments for future state ratification.

The Missouri application matched that currently being promoted by the Convention of States project of Citizens for Self-Governance. The proposed convention would be limited to three key reforms — term limits, fiscal restraints on the federal government, and reductions in the government’s size and scope. The convention could not consider other proposals.

A Missouri activist named Richard Calzone sued in state trial court to void the application. His argument was premised on several claims. He called the proposed gathering a “constitutional convention.” (The Constitution’s name for it is “Convention for proposing Amendments.”) Calzone also alleged the Missouri legislature’s application was invalid because it had not been presented to the governor for signature.

Judge Jon E. Beetem held that Calzone had no “standing” (personal right) to sue. But the ruling also recited correctly some important rules of Article V law.

To begin with, a convention for proposing amendments is a species of “convention of the states” — a kind of gathering with a long historical pedigree. The court declined to use the misleading label, “constitutional convention.”

The court also recognized that a state legislature’s power to apply derives from the U.S. Constitution, not from the reserved or legislative power of the state. Moreover, the Constitution gives the power to apply only to state legislatures. The governor has no role in the process.

The court also determined that “A state constitution may not add requirements to Article V’s process for amending the federal constitution.”

The court’s conclusion is reassuring. Convention opponents sometimes admit their legal claims may be wrong, but argue the courts are so corrupt they will adopt those false claims anyway.

In fact, however, the courts have a long record of applying constitutional amendment law accurately and fairly. The Missouri decision fits right in. It reinforces the conclusion that even though a few judges exceed their power, most of them conscientiously enforce the law as it is — not as some imagine it might be.

You can find the court’ s opinion in Calzone v. Richard here.